Gardening · Miscellaneous

A Fair Game

As crazy as this may sound, it’s time to start planning ahead for the county fair this summer. Though the premium book for 2016 isn’t yet published, the open classes don’t really change much year over year, so it’s a fairly safe bet that last year’s offerings won’t be drastically different. If the last two sentences were all Greek to you, let’s stop for a second and review the wonderful world of county fair contests and exhibitions.

Most, but not all, counties in a state will run a county fair. Cook County in Illinois is a notable one that doesn’t, simply because Chicago takes up most of the county so it’s very urban. County fairs are an inherently agricultural institution. Held in late summer/early fall they are a celebration of the hard work of farmers, home makers and everyone in between. There are contests or exhibitions in which entrants compete for a coveted blue ribbon (and a nominal premium) in all kinds of areas, including livestock, gardening, foods, sewing, photography, arts and crafts, etc. County fairs also have carnival rides and games, and entertainment like live music, demolition derbies and tractor pulls. And let’s not forget the carnival food – elephant ears, corn dogs, sweet lemonade…. not exactly allergy-eater friendly, but it smells amazing all the same. They are a ton of fun.

So, what are premium, premium books and classes? A premium is the prize money. Yep, you win a little cash when you place and score a first, second, third, or Best In Show ribbon. Don’t expect to get rich though – the premiums are token, usually just a few bucks a piece in most of the home economics categories. In a good year if you place well, you can hope to win back your exhibitor ticket to the fair and break even. But veterans of the county fairs aren’t in it for the money – the coveted ribbons and bragging rights are the real prize.

Premium books are the booklets (often digital on the fair’s website, but sometimes still a printed paper book) that outline the guidelines or rules for each competition. They let you know which categories are available, how and when to submit the entries, what the premiums are, and when the premiums will be paid. They also contain general fair information including a schedule of events, map of the grounds, ticket prices and which performers are expected to show.

Classes refer to the item being entered in the competition, and they are actually a subset of Divisions under Departments. Departments are the broadest grouping of like competitions, for example Flowers or Foods. Divisions refines the Department grouping a bit more, so for example, Cakes and Cookies. And finally, Class refers to the actual type of item being submitted; for Cakes, some Classes available might be White Layer, Cupcakes, Chocolate Layer, Angel Food, Bundt, etc.

To participate in the competitions, you have to register in advance, and most fairs have electronic registration on their website. At the time of registration, you need to purchase your exhibitor fair pass (usually cheaper than a regular fair pass) and pay your entry fees. In most cases entry fees are really cheap – last year’s Food entries at my fair were just seventy-five cents each. You also have to choose which classes you want to enter at the time of registration, which means you can’t just decide to bake up a blueberry pie on fair day and expect to enter it (though if you like a little bit of randomness, enter the “Other” Class for something unusual – just know that your item cannot be something available as another class; it really has to be something different and not listed on it’s own). Registration usually closes a few days before the fair, because most entries need to be submitted before the fair starts, so that they’re on display for the whole duration of the fair. Additionally, most of the non-livestock judging actually happens before the fair starts, so you can go to the fair on day one and see if you placed (which I absolutely did last year!).

Even though most registrations don’t open until late spring/early summer, if you’re interested in entering it really behooves you to start thinking about it now, since some of your items will take a lot of advance planning and care. If you’re entering the Flowers department, you need to think about when you’re planting to ensure you’re blooms are at their peak at competition time. Or if you’re entering something in the Sewing department, you want to give yourself plenty of time create you garment or quilt or whatever you’re entering. Most fairs have rules about when the items can be created – usually within the last year for non-perishable items (like preserved food and arts and crafts items). Obviously fresh food and plant material should be created or harvested as close to judging drop off as possible so it judges well. Even still, you’re going to want the time to practice your recipes and perfect them without feeling rushed, so consider that as well.

As for me, this year I’m planning to enter in four Classes within three Divisions across two Departments. Last year, I competed only in the Food Department, in the Quick Breads Division (for Pumpkin Class and Coffee Cake – Non-Yeast Class) and the Pies Division (for Berry Class). My coffee cake placed first and my pumpkin bread and blueberry pie each placed third. Not bad for a first timer! I’m changing it up a bit this year. Since we’ve gone gluten-free as a household and we don’t have any gluten-free classes, I feel like my current recipes can’t compete with the wheat versions. I may decide my pumpkin bread is good enough to go against the pack, but I still need to continue recipe testing. I’m not convinced yet. Which is why it’s important to decide about entries in advance of the registration window!

So I’m changing my approach for this year, and entering the following –

Grains, Vegetables, Fruits & Forages Department – Potted Culinary Herb Plants Division – Rosemary Class

Grains, Vegetables, Fruits & Forages Department – Best Display Of Division – Potted Herbs, 4 of More, Labeled Class

Foods Department – Preservations Division – Salsa, No Meat Class

Foods Department – Preservations Division – Barbecue Sauce Class

I was really excited about the potted plant entries we saw last year and decided I definitely had to try to enter there. And I’ve been canning for ages, so I’d like to see how I stack up in that area. I’d like to try to train my rosemary into a topiary, and I need to start thinking of my design for the potted herb container – I’ve already got a great container picked out, that I picked up at a thrift store for just five bucks. And I’d like to practice my salsa and barbecue sauce a few times before settling on the entries there. So lots of preparations over the coming months! And if you’ve got a county fair, I encourage you to try your hand at competing – it’s a lot of fun and collecting those ribbons can be addicting.